Friday, February 20, 2009

You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille

By Cappy Hall Rearick

Seven years ago, Lucille Smead told me she was scared, something to which I had never heard her admit. We were on our way to St. Vincent’s Hospital where she was scheduled for heart surgery the next day. She insisted that we take her 10-year-old big, white Lincoln, and that I be her designated driver. Before we had reached the end of the block, I sensed her fear. It was palpable. Not knowing what to say, I chattered.

“Did you turn off the coffee pot, Lucille?”

“Are you sure you locked the door?”

“Did you turn on the alarm system?”

She gazed out the passenger window as I maneuvered her white boxcar around the corner. “What if I don’t come back?” Her voice was soft, not much more than a whisper.

I nearly ran the boxcar up a light pole. “Lucille, you mustn’t think like that. You’ll be back here bossing us around before you know it.”

She didn’t cotton to my teasing as she ordinarily did. “Well, just in case I don’t come back, I left a letter of instructions about how things are to be carried out.” I nodded my head, not the least bit surprised that this 90-year-old independent woman would plan her own funeral.

When we arrived at the hospital, I settled Lucille in the lobby before returning to the white boxcar for her heavy Samsonite suitcase, circa 1955. Lugging it back to the lobby, I searched the area for a wheelchair. There were none.

“That’s okay,” she said. “I might be old, but I can still walk.”

Dragging the 1955 Samsonite, I followed behind her. Halfway to the elevator, I was gasping for breath as though I was the one with the heart problem. “Lucille,” I wheezed, “what on earth did you pack in this suitcase?”

She didn’t miss a beat. “My negligees.”

I should have known!

Slowly but surely, we made it to the elevator, and as I was about to push the 4th floor button, someone shouted, “Hold it!”

Seconds later, a tall, very good-looking man appeared. He was wearing a tailored suit and a striped silk tie. He thanked us for waiting and then, spying the suitcase, asked which of us was the patient.

I was still wheezing and almost raised my hand, but Lucille jumped right in to declare that she was to have heart surgery the following day. That said, this nonagenarian woman began to flirt with him ... and he with her.

I should have known!

“Tell me about yourself,” he said to her.

She smiled as though she’d been hoping he would ask that very question.

“My name is Lucille Smead and I love music, martinis and minding everybody else’s business. Maybe not in that order, but the sentence has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?”

The captivated stranger, nodding his head with her every word, laughed out loud.

“I was voted Who’s Who in the World of Women, and I was also named a Personality of the South. I’ve never been sure what that meant, but I like the sound of it.”

“Holy cow, Lucille! You never told me that,” I exclaimed.

The good looking man said, “I’m not surprised. I can tell that you are a remarkable woman.”

Lucille beamed. Once again, the man’s response had been exactly what she wanted to hear. As for me, they certainly had captured my attention. He asked about her profession and she smiled delightedly almost as though anticipating the question.

“I am a James Madison University and UVA graduate,” she said proudly. “I was the first Virginia State Supervisor of Speech Pathology, a position I created.” She lifted her chin. “I was also elected a FELLOW in the American Speech and Hearing Association.” Without a trace of pomposity, she added, “I was very good at my job, you see.”

Abruptly, she stopped ticking off the finer points of her life to interject, “I might not leave this hospital alive.”

Before I could reassure her, the stranger planted a big smile on his face and leaned down to her level. He was very tall and Lucille was extremely short. He looked into her eyes as though gazing at the woman of his dreams, the love of his life. “I have complete confidence that you will leave this hospital alive and well, and as good as new,” he told her.

The air in that small space was suddenly charged with electricity. It crackled. The hair on my arms stood up and said, “Howdy!”

Lucille grinned. “What makes you so certain? Are you my doctor?”

He kept his eyes locked onto hers. Still smiling, he shrugged his well-defined shoulders. “No, nothing like that,” he said. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that you’re going to be just fine. In fact, I feel so sure of it that I suggest we make a date to meet on this elevator one year from now. What do you say?”

Well, Lucille Smead’s mama didn’t raise a stupid daughter. She gazed up at him, batted her eyes a time or two and said, “Cocktails and dinner?”

“You bet!” The man’s grin was sprawled all over his face.

In between the first and 5th floors, Lucille met a perfect stranger, told him the story of her life, and then the two of them morphed into Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember. Holy Cow!

Blushing as though she were a young girl again, ninety-year-old Lucille agreed to meet him on that same elevator in exactly one year.

From that point on, she forgot all about dying. She no longer wondered whether she would go home again, but made plans instead for when she returned. Who knows exactly what transpired between those two strangers, but whatever it was, it was precisely what was needed to restore her steadfast strength and sense of purpose.

Two years ago, I recalled the incident to her, and asked if she had remembered to go back. She laughed and said, “My land! I forgot all about it!”

As for me, I’m convinced that Lucille Smead got up close and personal that day with an angel sent to St. Vincent’s especially for her. In any case, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Lucille’s newly repaired heart never forgot her Southern roots, nor did she ever lose her sense of humor. On August 7, 2006, the St. Simons Presbyterian Church was filled with friends and admirers who came to say goodbye before she took that final journey home to Virginia.

The recessional song that 96-year-old woman had asked to be played as she departed the church was,

“You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille.”

I should have known!